Michael Jackson was a singer, songwriter, dancer and celebrity icon with a huge catalog of hit records and countless awards to his credit. Beyond that, he transfixed the world like few entertainers before or since. As a solo performer, he enjoyed a level of superstardom previously known only to Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Frank Sinatra.
Jackson became an instant star at age 11 as the cherubic frontman in Motown’s phenomenally successful sibling group, the Jackson 5. But that band of brothers, who kicked off their Motown tenure with the unprecedented feat of four consecutive Number One singles in 1970, was just a prelude to the heights that Michael Jackson would scale as a solo artist in the Eighties with the success of Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad. Those three albums – all produced by Quincy Jones - and their accompanying videos, launched Jackson into a high celebrity orbit. It was a trajectory he would maintain well into the Nineties with such multiplatinum releases as Dangerous and HIStory: Past, Present and Future – Book 1. He remains an object of adoration, fascination and speculation even after his death in 2009.
Indeed, Jackson surpassed all previous notions of fame to attain a level of iconic attention that was not only awe-inspiring but also daunting and, on some levels, damaging. He has been proclaimed “the biggest-selling artist of all time,” “the single most awarded entertainer the world has ever known,” “the most popular artist in the history of show business,” and “the world’s most famous man.” He was also, by his own reckoning, the “King of Pop.”
Michael Jackson was groomed as a solo star while still a member of the Jackson 5. In October 1971, having barely turned thirteen, Jackson released the first in a successful string of solo singles over the next year that included “Got to Be There,” “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben.” The last of these was a Number One ballad sung to a rat, hinting at a love of animals that would manifest itself in the menagerie he would accumulate at his Neverland Valley Ranch in ensuring decades.
In 1978, he appeared in the film version of The Wiz, where he met musical director Quincy Jones. The veteran Jones, whose credits in the jazz and pop worlds extended back to the Fifties, would become the producer of Jackson’s best-known albums. The first of these, Off the Wall (1979) introduced Michael Jackson to the world as a vibrant, poised young man bursting with talent and ideas. It was his first solo album in four years, and he turned 21 the month it was released. Off the Wall yielded chart-toppers in “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You.”
However, it was Thriller that broke all records, achieving nothing short of revitalizing and revolutionizing the entire music business. Released in November 1982, Thriller yielded a staggering seven hits: “The Girl Is Mine” (#2) “Billie Jean” (#1), “Beat It” (#1), “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (#5), “Human Nature” (#7), “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” (#10) and “Thriller” (#4). The album received sales boosts following Jackson’s electrifying performance on the Motown 25th Anniversary Special, aired in May 1983. After a medley of hits from the Jackson 5, Michael sang “Billie Jean” by himself, debuting his gravity-defying “Moonwalk” dance move. By this point, it was clear that he had outgrown the Jackson 5, and only 1984’s Victory album and tour remained as a final collaboration with his brothers.
Jackson shrewdly recognized the convergence of music and video media in the Eighties. His videos became fixtures on MTV, which was only a year old at the time of Thriller’s release. In particular, the popularity of “Beat It,” with its hard-rocking guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen, helped break down what had been perceived as a color line on MTV. The debut of a 14-minute extended clip based on the song “Thriller,” considered the most important video in music history, further heightened Jackson’s celebrity.
“It is impossible to reflect on the music of 1983 without thinking of a Michael Jackson song, his music so dominated the charts that year,” wrote Billboard magazine.
Thriller topped the charts for nine months (37 weeks) and remained in Billboard’s album chart for more than two years (122 weeks). The album won Jackson eight Grammy Awards and seven American Music Awards. In 1985, it was proclaimed the Best Selling Album of All Time by the Guinness Book of Records. Thriller has sold more than 29 million copies in the U.S. alone, making it the best-selling album in history. It’s been claimed that Jackson sold more than 110 million records during the Eighties. Beyond the numbers, how important were Jackson’s record-shattering feats?
As producer Quincy Jones told Time magazine, “Black music had to play second fiddle for a long time, but its spirit is the whole motor of pop. Michael has connected with every soul in the world.”
In 1985, Jackson helped topple another sales record. As coauthor of and performer on “We Are the World” - a benefit single for the USA for Africa famine-relief charity, recorded with a cast of music stars - Jackson had a big hand in what became the top-selling single up to that point in history. That same year, he also bought publishing rights to ATV Music – 4,000 songs in all, including about 250 Beatles songs - outbidding his friend and collaborator, Paul McCartney. In 1986, Jackson appeared in Caption Eo, a 15-minute 3D film made for the Disney theme parks by Jackson with renowned producers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
Surprisingly, Michael Jackson never toured as a solo artist until after the release of Bad, when he undertook a fifteen-nation juggernaut that occupied much of 1988. Bad stayed at Number One for eight weeks and launched seven hits, including five that topped the charts: “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Dirty Diana.” Bad’s canny use of urban beats, smooth jazz-funk and rock guitar in the service of sharp, stylish production reaffirmed Jackson’s genius and star quality. But some of its songs also hinted at the mounting pressures that lay beneath the surface of superstardom.
Jackson continued to make arresting music in the Nineties, working with cutting-edge artist-producers from the hip-hop arena, such as Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Dangerous appeared late in 1991 and was preceded by a controversial extended video for its leadoff single, “Black or White.” Topping the charts for seven weeks, “Black or White” became Jackson’s biggest hit since “Billie Jean.” Dangerous, like Thriller and Bad, was the source of seven more hit singles. In addition to “Black or White,” they included “Remember the Time” (#3), “In the Closet” (#6) and “Will You Be There” (#7).
In 1995, Jackson issued HIStory: Past, Present and Future - Book I, a double-disc set that paired 15 new songs with a greatest-hits set. Its first single, “Scream,” was a duet with sister Janet Jackson set to a high-tech groove. He scored his 13th (and final) Number One single in 1995 with “You Are Not Alone,” written and produced by R&B star R. Kelly. The album debuted at Number One and sold 7 million copies (15 million worldwide), maintaining the multi-platinum standard set by Bad (8 million U.S., 25 million worldwide) and Dangerous (7 million U.S., 27 million worldwide) - awesome numbers all, paling only next to Thriller’s unbeatable record.
From the moment that Thriller made him a phenomenon in 1983, Jackson’s every move was reported and analyzed by the media, and his quirks – including the reported purchase of the Elephant Man’s bones and an infatuation with his animal companion Bubbles, a chimpanzee - made headlines. So did his apparent predilection for plastic surgery. Later in his career, some of his alleged behaviors engendered serious controversy, driving him to exile abroad or behind the walls of the fantasy-filled Los Olivos, California, estate and theme park he called “Neverland.”
In September 1993, lawyers for a 13-year-old boy filed a civil suit against Jackson for seduction and sexual abuse. On December 22, he responded to the allegations via satellite from his Neverland compound: “I am totally innocent of any wrongdoing.” On January 25, 1994, he settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, claimed to be as high as $22 million.
In November 2003 Jackson was booked on suspicion of child molestation. Prosecutors filed charges a month later, and in April 2004 a grand jury indicted him on four counts of lewd conduct with a child younger than 14 and other charges. In June 2005 he was found not guilty after a three-and-a-half-month trial.
These controversies took their toll on Jackson’s reputation, health and sales figures. Blood on the Dance Floor, a 1997 set of remixes from HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, plus five new songs, sold barely one million copies – a flop, by Jackson’s standards. Jackson’s first album of the new millennium, Invincible, was released in September 2001. It became his fifth Number One album, selling 2 million copies, yet yielded only two minor singles and fell far short of sales a Michael Jackson album typically generated. Choosing to spend much of his time abroad, where he remained a revered superstar, he toured and attended to his charitable foundation, Heal the World.
In July 2008, after several years living out of the spotlight in the country of Bahrain, Jackson announced a series of concerts at London’s O2 Arena. Seven hundred fifty thousand tickets sold in four hours after going on sale in March 2009. Some of the shows, initially scheduled to begin in July, were postponed until 2010. Ultimately, Jackson’s “This Is It” tour never materialized.
On June 25, 2009, Jackson died from cardiac arrest in Los Angeles. A 911 call was received shortly after noon, and he was pronounced dead at 2:26 p.m. A drug he had used as an intravenous sleep aid was subsequently cited as a contributing factor. The world received news of Jackson’s death with shock. Spontaneous gatherings in the streets recalled the outpouring of grief that followed news of John Lennon’s death in 1980. “His was a life of triumph and torment,” wrote Steve Jones in USA Today.
Jackson’s life was celebrated at a memorial service at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on July 7, 2009. Those who paid tribute by speaking or singing included Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Jennifer Hudson, Mariah Carey, Rev. Al Sharpton, Jackson’s brothers and sisters, and most movingly of all, his young daughter, Paris Katherine Jackson.
Michael Jackson's physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter nearly two and a half years after Jackson’s death.